Colorado Is About To End Use Of The Death Penalty

Death Penalty Repeal House Committee Hearing
Hart Van Denburg / CPR
Lawmakers on the state House Judiciary Committee hear from supporters and opponents on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2020, of a bill calling for the repeal of the death penalty in Colorado. Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver listened to testimony.

Colorado is poised to abolish the death penalty after the House passed a repeal bill Wednesday. The Senate has also passed it and Gov. Jared Polis has said he will sign it.

Before the vote, Democrat Adrienne Benavidez reminded her colleagues of the many crime victims who have said they favor ending the death penalty. She pointed to testimony from Aurora theater shooting survivor Marcus Weaver.

"[He said] that when we use the death penalty, we surrender to the worst in us. He said it debases us," Benavidez said.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville is on the other side of this argument. He is a survivor of the Columbine High School attack. He argued death is the only appropriate punishment in some cases.

"Not vengeance, not vendetta, not anger, or even closure. Justice demands it," Neville said.

The Colorado Senate passed SB20-100 in January. It passed in the House 38 votes to 27.

Governor Polis has said he'll sign the bill making Colorado the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty.

Experts say the move is part of a nationwide shift of opinion against capital punishment. Support for the death penalty fell nationally from 80 percent in 1995 to 56 percent in 2019, according to Gallup. Most people now prefer life without parole over death as the punishment for the most severe crimes.

In 1974, Colorado voters approved a measure to reinstate the state’s death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court halted it in 1972. In 1978, the Colorado Supreme Court temporarily froze the practice. In 1979, the legislature amended the law to begin executions once more.

The state has tried to abolish the death penalty five times before in recent years. An effort in 2009 failed by a single last-minute Senate vote. Last year, Democrats gave up on repeal as tensions rose within the party

Colorado has only executed one person in the last 50 years: Gary Lee Davis, in 1997. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper effectively froze executions in Colorado in 2013. Three men wait on death row today.

Megan Verlee and Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.